Fasting and Meditation – How to Fast
Fasting, when performed methodically, purifies and strengthens both mind and body, an essential requirement for meditation.
Yogic knowledge places great importance on fasting. Fasting, when performed adequately and methodically helps to keep both the body and mind in a perfect state of health, an essential requirement for meditation. After all an unhealthy and rigid body will complain when seated for prolonged periods of time.
Food is essential to the body. Every moment millions of cells perish, new ones taking birth to replace the old ones. Without nutrients, this process would not be possible. But nutrition is not enough, assimilation is equally necessary. Food that cannot be assimilated can become toxic to the body.
What are the benefits of fasting?
Fasting is generally done to purify and cleanse the body, but it is equally regenerative on the mind. The mind and body are not separate, they are fully and totally connected. A body filled with impurities will pollute the mind, and an imbalanced mind will naturally imbalance the body.
Fasting strengthens the mind, there is no doubt about it. Unless it is done with narcissistic intentions, with the sole purpose of altering appearance to current social norms. In such cases, the act of fasting will in fact make the mind weaker, as it is an act born from an unhealthy desire. But when done with positive intentions such as improving health, destroying limitations by challenging the mind or to expand consciousness, it will unquestionably strengthen the mind.
First, fasting being a Niyama – fixed observance, challenges our willpower. We stop ourselves from ingesting all that we want to eat, prioritising will over instinct, a conscious strategy over a physical desire.
Secondly, fasting increases awareness. Hunger makes us aware of the emptiness of the stomach. It makes us realise the needs of the body and all the internal processes ongoing in the digestive system. This awareness makes us reduce our activity and speech, to ensure we do not waste any energy.
Lastly, by fasting we allow the body to take a break from digestion, assimilation and elimination. We give it time to heal and restore other systems in the body, thereby improving our immediate health.
Animals that fast
Animals have a natural instinct to fast when they face any disease. Their curative strategy is a mix of light, fresh air, fasting and resting. Digestion requires great energy expenditure, energy which is needed greatly when confronting an illness.
There are many who taking nature as an example, fast at the first sign of illness. Just a day or two of fasting can be enough to eliminate an illness from its very roots in the beginning stages.
Mindful eating is not only highly beneficial, but extremely important if one wishes abundant health. One should eat at regular intervals, matching the amount consumed to hunger. Overfilling the stomach due to taste or a false appetite will present grave health consequences in the mid to long run.
Fasting gives our overworked digestive organs some time to rest and heal. Undigested foods lying in the digestive track are digested. Digestive juices are able to restore their quality and quantity.
Fasting must be done methodically and when necessary. Fasting forcefully without adequate preparation will be damaging to both body and mind. For instance, people who drink tea and coffee throughout the day, will only damage their system if they fast. The acidity in tea and coffee – and the caffeine – during a fast will not be cleansing or helpful in any way. Unless one has prepared the body by feeding it adequate foods.
Energy expenditure throughout the day must also be checked during a fast. Fasting when we require high energy levels due to our lifestyle or profession will unequivocally be detrimental to health, in such situations we must first ensure we have ample time to take a break from our responsibilities if want to give our digestive system a break from its duties.
Though fasting may prove to be curative with many illnesses, it will not be fruitful in ailments emerging from inadequate nourishment or other more serious troubles, or of course, during pregnancy.
How to Fast
Fasting should be approached gently and increased gradually; fasting only on specific days is a good method. For instance, the yogic calendar has two specific days a month, which are considered to be highly beneficial for fasting called Ekadashi – the eleventh lunar day in both lunar phases each month. Since ancient times people have fasted on Ekadashi. Another good way it to fast only on a specific day a week, which is best chosen depending on one’s lifestyle and daily schedule.
There are many ways of fasting, some people don’t eat anything at all for the entire day, sipping only water from time to time. However, such a strict fast may not be beneficial to all. It is best to limit a fast to eating only fruits, boiled or steamed vegetables and nuts, with no limitations on quantity. With time, the amount consumed or the number of meals can be decreased to make it a stricter fast.
How to Break a Fast
A fast can be broken at any time, but the most important rule is to wait until hunger calls. There is a possibility of constipation the first few times one fasts, but it usually wanes rapidly. This is one of the reasons a fruit-diet is commonly prescribed for a day or two when a fast is broken. Fruits digest with great ease and stimulate peristalsis. If fruit is not available – or wanted – a simple soup or other form of liquid food will do, other than milk.
When a fast is broken, there is usually a strong craving to eat large quantities of different foods. This is an impulse which must be avoided by will, as the consequences of giving into such an urge will be far worse than not having fasted at all.
If we yield to our instincts and overfill our stomach after a fast, to the extent we get bloated and constipated, it will be necessary to fast again. This time, with more awareness and restraint.
The quantity of food ingested after breaking a fast should increase gradually, matching the increase of our digestive fire and vitality.
Long fasts – for over three days – should always be done under expert guidance, as to not damage the body. If done under expert guidance it can be greatly healing, energising and spiritually fortifying.
Fasting and the mind
It is important to be aware of the thoughts emerging in the mind during a fast. Thoughts of food should be disregarded quickly, as they will generate more desire, which will put us to the test not during the fast, but shortly after when we break our fast.
Ayurveda and Fasting
“langhanam paramam aushadham” – Fasting is the supreme medicine. Ayurveda’s ancient text advise regular alteration in the daily intake of food. This alteration should be based on time of the year. However, Ayurveda encourages the consumption of easily-digestible foods in small quantities rather than retraining oneself to water. A strict fast could easily upset the doshas, which when out of balance are responsible for all diseases. For this reason, the ayurvedic perspective is to fast according to each ones dosha.
“And how does fasting purify? Because whenever you are on a fast the body has no more work of digestion. In that period the body can work in throwing out dead cells, toxins. When the body has nothing to digest, it starts a self-cleaning process spontaneously and starts throwing out all that is not needed. Fasting is a method of purification. Once in a while, a fast is beautiful – not doing anything, not eating, just resting. Take as much liquid as possible and just rest, and the body will be cleaned. Sometimes, if you feel that a longer fast is needed, you can do a longer fast also – but be deep in love with the body. And if you feel the fast is harming the body in any way, stop it. If the fast is helping the body, you will feel more energetic; you will feel more alive; you will feel rejuvenated, vitalised. This should be the criterion: if you start feeling that you are getting weaker, if you start feeling that a subtle trembling is coming into the body, then be aware – now the thing is no longer a purification. It has become destructive. Stop it.” – Osho